Is High Cholesterol During Pregnancy Normal?

Increased cholesterol during pregnancy is essential, but if it's compounded with high levels before conception, it could lead to hypertension and risks.

pregnant woman at doctor
Photo: S_L/Shutterstock

High cholesterol levels during pregnancy are normal and necessary to make steroid hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, which are vital for carrying a pregnancy to term. Your growing baby uses cholesterol at a high rate for healthy limb and brain development.

"There are essential partnerships that occur to support the developing pregnancy," says Dr. Julie Scott, an Ob-Gyn and medical director of labor and delivery at the University of Colorado Hospital. "The mother, placenta, and fetus have specific enzymes to alter and change cholesterol into functional hormones."

What Cholesterol Levels Are Healthy During Pregnancy?

Cholesterol levels increase naturally during the second trimester, peak during the third, and typically return to normal about four weeks after delivery. Scott says most cardiologists recommend that bad LDL levels be less than 100 mg/dL and that good HDL cholesterol should be greater than 60 mg/dL. When a person is pregnant, their cholesterol levels increase by 25 to 50%, and fortunately, HDL levels seem to increase more.

"We don't often actively treat high cholesterol in pregnant women unless there are extreme concerns for cardiovascular risk," Scott says. "Pregnancy is a small window of time in a woman's life, and the potential to cause harm to the fetus must be weighed."

High Cholesterol During Pregnancy Can Be Dangerous

High cholesterol during pregnancy can lead to pregnancy-induced hypertension, which can threaten the life of both the parent and the child. Low cholesterol can lead to premature labor and low birth weight.

Studies have also shown that high cholesterol has adversely affected a pregnant parent's offspring, both in the womb and later in life. For example, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, children whose birthing parent had high cholesterol before becoming pregnant are five times as likely to have high cholesterol as adults.

How To Lower High Cholesterol During Pregnancy

Under different conditions, doctors may prescribe statins to lower cholesterol levels; however, studies have shown that these cholesterol-reducing drugs are connected to abnormalities in babies' physiological development. While results are limited, Scott still recommends stopping using these medications if you are pregnant or trying to conceive.

"For women who have severely elevated cholesterol levels, there is the potential to use bile acid-binding resins to reduce cholesterol," Scott says. "Unfortunately, women using these medicines tend to complain of severe gastrointestinal problems."

Pregnancy Diet and Exercise Tips for High Cholesterol

The best ways to maintain healthy cholesterol levels during pregnancy are to eat a well-balanced diet with fruits, vegetables, and fiber; avoid saturated fats; and exercise at a level approved by your doctor. Also, remember that your body only needs about 300 additional calories daily to support you and your baby.

To improve and maintain cholesterol levels, eating a healthy diet that supports your body and pregnancy is important. A few key factors in maintaining a healthy cholesterol level are to include high-fiber foods and to ensure you choose the healthiest fats possible.

Here are a few foods that are great for healthy cholesterol levels.

Eat healthy fats

Eat healthy fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Luckily there are plenty of great sources of healthy fats to choose from, including:

  • Nuts and seed
  • Avocados
  • Fish such as tuna, salmon, swordfish, sardines, and halibut
  • Oils such as olive, sunflower, canola, and vegetable oils

You can also eat cheese as long as it is low in fat. A few great options include fresh mozzarella, ricotta, and cottage cheese.

Eat foods high in soluble fiber

Soluble fibers are an excellent way to fight high cholesterol and maintain healthy cholesterol levels. The way soluble fiber works are pure magic: soluble fiber turns into a thick paste-like substance that prevents fats from absorbing into the body while also slowing down blood sugar spikes. Diets high in soluble fiber can also help lower heart disease and obesity risks. High fiber is considered at least 5 grams of fiber per serving.

Here are a few great food options high in fiber to add to your daily menu:

  • Oats, barley, millet, chia seeds, and other grains
  • Berries such as blackberry, strawberry, raspberry, and blueberry
  • Apples, pears, grapes, and citrus
  • Dried fruits
  • Broccoli, Brussels sprouts
  • Sweet potato
  • Beans, including garbanzo, soy, black, and lima beans

Exercises to fight high cholesterol while pregnant

Food can't fight the good fight alone. Consider adding exercise to your daily routine to help lower your cholesterol or maintain a healthy cholesterol level while pregnant. Always talk to your doctor about what exercise is safe for you, especially if you're pregnant or trying to conceive.

  • Walking or light jogging
  • Swimming laps or water exercise classes
  • Yoga
  • Light weight lifting

The Bottom Line

During pregnancy, it is normal and necessary for your cholesterol levels to rise. To help keep them at safe and healthy levels, talk to your doctor about adding diet and exercise to your daily routine. Consider adding healthy fats and high fiber to your diet but don't forget to drink plenty of water and get lots of sleep to support a healthy pregnancy.

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